Blackhawks forward Jujhar Khaira has more “mobility and strength” in his skating stride since returning from a back injury.
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DETROIT — When Blackhawks forward Jujhar Khaira wasn’t physically able to resume playing out of the Christmas break, he initially thought something in his back was just “acting up.”
But as the days turned into weeks and months, his patience and ability to psychologically handle yet another extended absence was tested again.
“It comes to a point where you have to put it behind you,” Khaira said Wednesday. “There’s really nothing you can do when you’re recovering [other than to] just set yourself up for when you get back.”
After missing five games with a concussion and then the final 43 games of last season with a back injury that required surgery, Khaira ended up missing another 26 games this season with this new back injury, which likely “ties in together” with the previous one but wasn’t exactly the same.
What eventually allowed him to return on Feb. 27 against the Ducks were exercises and treatments that “corrected” his methods of movement by utilizing muscles that had been neglected, particularly around his hips.
“I don’t think it was moving properly,” he said. “I don’t know if I changed my skating stride, but it’s more [that I’m] just feeling better skating. [I have] more mobility and strength when pushing off.”
Khaira has averaged 12:58 of ice time in six games since returning. He recorded his first point since Dec. 13 with an assist Wednesday against the Red Wings while centering the fourth line between Boris Katchouk and Joey Anderson.
He has been paying very close attention to his body when on the ice. Coach Luke Richardson, meanwhile, understands why but — from afar — hasn’t seen any issues with Khaira’s movement.
Said Khaira: “The first couple [games], I didn’t have as much juice in my legs, and now it’s slowly building up. That gives you confidence and playmaking ability in tight areas. It’s always a work in progress, but it has improved.”
Said Richardson: “Sometimes you might feel it a little bit more, but [Jujhar is] a nice, fluid skater with a good stride. So, to me, he covers a lot of ground quickly with his reach. That helps out, especially on the penalty kill and in the ‘D’-zone.”
The Hawks have needed Khaira lately. With several forwards traded away and Jonathan Toews (general health), Reese Johnson (concussion), Colin Blackwell (groin) and Austin Wagner (undisclosed) currently sidelined, they have only 12 healthy forwards on the roster.
That will likely remain the case for the final 18 games of the season, considering Hawks management will be more concerned about keeping Rockford’s roster well-stocked for their playoff push than bolstering the Hawks’ ragtag crew. The IceHogs have struggled somewhat over the past two months and currently sit fourth in their division with a 27-21-8 record.
It could be a different story, however, come summer. Khaira is one of only two pending unrestricted free agents left among the forwards — Andreas Athanasiou being the other — and the odds currently seem low (although not nonexistent) that he’ll be re-signed.
He was brought in by ex-general manager Stan Bowman in 2021 to provide grit and depth on a supposed contender. The injury woes that have limited him to 62 appearances over two seasons, his unremarkable performance in those appearances — 10 points and a 45.3% five-on-five scoring-chance ratio — and the fact he’ll turn 29 in August make him a poorer match for new GM Kyle Davidson’s rebuild.
But he will have the next month to try to prove otherwise — or at least get his career back on track.
“Hopefully he stays healthy the rest of the year,” Richardson said. “I’m sure he’ll need it [in order to] mentally know he can withstand that time and that amount of games.”